“It’s already 2030,” Herby said. “We have little time for the party left.” He was right, of course. Who would forsake a genuine jungle party for a simple flirt, which could possibly be re-kindled at a later time? I reluctantly took exception from my evolving sweetheart, and left for the party.
“We’ll leave at midnight,” shouted Captain Perez from the bridge, laughing. “Don’t drink too much, boys, and be sure to crawl back to our boat before we leave.”
We balanced over the wooden plank that linked the boat to the levee. Not far, on the banks of the river, the party was fired up already. It was refreshing cool. A generator behind the plaza powered some flickering neon bulbs that attracted thousands of moths, beetles and other insects. Food and drink stalls lined the plaza. At its corner a aluminum cauldron steamed with fermented cornstarch (chicha). An elderly lady stirred the pot, and served a crowd of people queuing up. The stuff tasted sweet and mellow, and was in ample supply, and one didn’t feel the alcohol during the first three mugs.Fat-bellied black hogs walked through the crowd, and grunted as the strange gringos made their appearance. Everybody had come down to the plaza. A crowd of young and old gathered on a simple circle of clay under a palm leaf roof. The drums were beating, and the dance started. A wild, primitive, primordial beat sounded, the essence of any dance music, perhaps. The girls on the dance floor were just gorgeous. Any of them looked like a beauty queen, with velvet brown skin, long black hair and lancet-shaped eyes. The captain was right.
We danced and drank as much as we could. But following my innate curiosity, I soon discovered the delicious aguadiente, fermented and distilled from wild bee honey, gorgeous stuff. I shouldn’t have touched that fire water. In combination with an empty stomach, the sweet chicha plus aguadiente became a killer drink I better should have refrained from. I became hopelessly drunk. I lost my balance and my pretty dancing partner as my condition deteriorated. I went to the jungle edge to relax and to recover. Faces appeared, dreamlike in the blue moonlight, offering different kinds of drinks and drugs. I resisted this time, however, and staggered back to the Padrino as the departure signal horned.
I almost fell in the river, whilst crawling over the wooden plank leading back to the boat. Then I felt an enormous stomach pain. I couldn’t remember quite clearly what happened next.
When I woke up, it was already 1000. The boat was steaming at full blast over a sparkling river surface. I had been sleeping like an angel, sitting with my back against the railings. Captain Perez showed me a roller ball pen portrait he had made from my sleeping face, whilst having his breakfast. The portrait was remarkably well done and bore quite a bit of resemblance with me.
I went around the boat on my morning tour of duty. Mrs. Sanchez gave me a terrible look.
“You were rumbling around and squalling all night. Nobody of us could sleep.” It was the first time Mrs. Sanchez had ever talked to me. Some people never find a good occasion to talk, that’s why they are left with the bad ones.
I tried to look as innocent as the Easter Lamb, shrugged my shoulders, and moved on.
At the engine room I met the taciturn Natcho. He didn’t say anything, but gave me an ominous look whilst handing me a big broom. I walked around the corner, and there it was. I saw a huge, pyramid-shaped heap of dung, right in front of Adriana’s kitchen entry door. Last night, I vaguely remembered, I had tried to liberate myself from stomach pain. As the bathroom was unusable I had to sit on top of the railings. Contemplating Newton’s law of gravity I was aiming at the mighty whirlpool behind the ship’s propellers.
I did my duty and cleaned the passage. Adriana came by and gave me a bottle with Chlorox. She didn’t say anything or even look at me.Last night, so it seemed, I had ruined my reputation for good. I had disturbed everyone’s sleep, neglected the charming Adriana, and decorated her kitchen entry. That’s probably why many religions call for a modest use of alcohol, and the avoidance of any drugs. The worst thing was that it would take me some time to mend my sensual fences with Adriana.
I cleaned myself with a few buckets of river water, and sat in the sun to dry-up, which happened quickly. Then I went to see the captain on the bridge, as I felt a need to apologize. Captain Perez was in a merry mood, and seemed to be happy for another little chat.
“Don’t take life too serious, son,” he said laughing. “We all make mistakes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
He obviously wanted to cheer me up, and pulled off one of his many stories.
“Look over there,” he said, pointing toward the jungle. A section of the forest passed by, characterized by very tall and large trees, and particularly widespread canopies.
“In this kind of forest,” he whispered, “You can collect any kind of medicine plant. There isn’t a single disease without herbal cure from jungle plants. Look at this huge tree over there, for instance. It carries a fruit exactly looking like a penis. It even keeps people of my age going, I’m not kidding.”
I listened to his medical bush stories for a while, and took my exception for a party of chess with Herby. Once the game was finished, with me as so often the loosing party, I saw Esperanzita coming along, and I wondered if I could chat her up a bit. I lured her to follow me into a corner on the ship’s stern section. We talked a little bit, but the problem was that there was not much to talk. I gently reached out to caress her lovely cheeks.
“I don’t want to go with you dirty gringo,” she screamed, smacked my face and rushed back to her kitchen den. Her words gave me some indication to which level my reputation had fallen.
Quietly I walked back. Emiliano Sanchez, having witnessed our theatre scene form a-far, gave me a sharp glance and whispered:
“So, tell me, did it work?’
I just shook my head.
“Hombre, you did what you had to do,” said Emiliano. “A real macho has to explore his terrain, and put his mark. Life is direct and brutal like a bullfight.”
“You are right, Emiliano” I said, engaging in a silly macho conversation. “A man has to be a man, be daring, brave, and take risks. Women are like fortresses. They don’t surrender at the first wave of attack.”
I didn’t believe any of the crap I was saying, but a little bit of comedy didn’t do harm either. Sanchez gave me another approving nod and said: “Well said, my friend.”
“Peruvian women are the best in the world,” he whispered to me, shyly glancing over where the family was sleeping. His evil fat-apple-butt wife was snoring. The last thing he wanted was to wake up wife and kids, while sharing some particular wisdom with me.
“Peruvian women are pretty, horny and hot. They want to do it three times a day, at least. But they are brats, too. They need are in need of some male guidance, do you know what I mean? Sanchez grinned and chuckled. His golden Chavin ring sparkled.
We continued chatting nonsense like this for a while. Up on the sky, a small metallic triangle of a jet roared in easterly direction, leaving a straight double condensation trail behind. I watched the aircrafts distant trace with awe. How many days had passed since I saw a plane on the sky? The aircraft I saw was probably heading toward Iquitos, I thought, but we seemed still to be far away, and there was nobody who could tell how far.
When it was getting dark I returned to my corner at the exhaust pipes, to find my mate Herby in bad condition. His skin was red like a lobster’s and he was shivering all over the body.
“Swamp fever, likely a bad malaria” diagnosed Jimenez, who came back from his daily inspection of the engine room. “He will die from it, if he doesn’t get medical help soon. Take these fever pills. They are the last drugs I have. Maybe he will hold out until Requena.”
I kept watching Herby throughout the night. He was sweating and stammering incomprehensible stuff. At dawn the ship slowed down as we were approaching Requena. We arrived there at ten thirty.
“We are leaving at noon, sharp,” said Captain Perez. The Sanchez family left the Padrino in the little alumina dingy. Then it was my turn. Jorge, the one-eyed roustabout, rowed me over to the quay. He had instructions to wait for me, but not too long.
Requena was a little town located on a peninsula, bounded on one side by the river and swamplands on the other side. I was in a hurry to find medicine. To my surprise Requena turned out to be a Chinese city. I quickly got hold of a good Chinese doctor. I described him Herby’s problem. He just nodded, and gave me three pockets of medicine.
As there was about half an hour left, I went to a Cantonese restaurant, and enjoyed a fresh-roasted Peking duck. They served also a local drink, called something like Aguajina. A yellow, sweet fluid, full of flavor it was one of the best drinks I ever had tasted. It was made from a swamp plant, they told me. Sitting on a bench and watching people walking by was fascinating. The scene looked like an impressionist painting, but with a Chinese décor. A dirt street ran along a row of little shops. On the other side of the street stretched swamplands, full of white, yellow and blue lotus flowers. Every young Chinese lady walking on the quay sported some red or blue payong umbrella. To protect from the sunlight, I suppose. I wondered in which part of the world had I landed. Was this really Peru, South America, another twist in our strange collective dream?
I wished I could have stayed longer, and established a more lasting contact with this intriguing place and its people. But my time was up and I rushed to the harbor. Somehow our dear captain always managed to curtail the good times, whilst allocating plenty of spare time to blow up his boat, or to get stuck somewhere in the middle of hell.
When I arrived at the harbor, I saw Jorge rowing away, in the small aluminum dingy. The Padrino had lifted anchors, and blew compressed air through its horns.
I made signs, and Jorge reluctantly rowed back to pick me up again.
The next day or two passed without mayor incidents, and we made good progress. At midday, Captain Perez called me to the bridge.
“Look here, son,” pointing to the distance. Out there is the confluence point of the Ucayaly and the Maranon. Once they join up the river ahead is called Amazonas. A river so broad and wide, that sometimes you can’t see either of the shores. Our journey should progress well now, and we might be in Iquitos by tomorrow midday.”
Herby’s health improved significantly, and we made plans for what to do next after arriving in Iquitos, and how to continue from there our long journey to Montevideo, down under on the other side of the continent.
When dusk fell I remarked that the searchlight had become weak. There was hardly any electricity left. Our travel now relied entirely on the waning moon and the instinct of Mr. Someone behind the rudder. I sensed that our ordeal wasn’t quite over, yet.
(c)2008 by Franz L Kessler